Teachers Unions Don't Let Door Slam on the Last Guy Before Attacking Merit Pay

That didn’t take long. What, a millisecond? The door-slam was still reverberating behind departed Dallas schools chief Mike Miles — supposedly the very devil incarnate, author of all ills, according to the teachers unions — when they went after merit pay, their real target all along.

In a press release, the Dallas branch of the National Education Association has called for the death of the new merit pay system for Dallas teachers, which it says, “was pushed through by a former superintendent who left the district under divisive circumstances.”

This is all local eyewash to keep the national NEA organization happy, by the way, and isn’t going to happen. The merit pay system, called TEI for Teacher Excellence Initiative, enjoys the support of a solid six-vote majority of the nine-member Dallas school board. It isn’t going anywhere, although it probably does need some tweaks.

But maybe having it all out again over the issue now could be sort of a good thing. Maybe Miles’ decision to depart and Michael Hinojosa’s to return has at least unburdened us of the really stupid part of the local school reform debate — the notion that Miles was a mad scientist sent here by plutocrats to inflict torture on innocent pedagogues.

Maybe now we can get down to real life about it. We have a new old guy as superintendent now or maybe an old new guy, depending on how you look at it. Hinojosa was superintendent before Miles, and now he is again after him.

When he came back, all sides seemed to agree Hinojosa would be more conciliatory. Great. So now we have conciliatory. Let’s stick with that. And let’s talk about what this has really been about from the beginning anyway.

In only three years in Dallas, Miles put a number of milestone reforms in place, none more significant than TEI, which shifted teacher pay increases to a new rubric based on classroom evaluations, student surveys and student achievement as measured by achievement tests.

The old system sometimes is unfairly described as based only on seniority. My mother, a pioneer member of the NEA in Pontiac, Michigan, would roll over in her grave and take my lunch money away from me if I let it go at that.

The existing teacher pay system in almost all of America’s public school systems up until recently evolved from efforts to erase old practices based on racism, sexism and favoritism. I don’t think I have to spell those out. We all know the isms.

So that system evolved in the second half of the 20th century as an attempt to base teacher pay instead on uniform objective standards — general education, special required skills and, yes, seniority. That’s what my mother fought for and so did most of the serious people in public education.

As we entered the 21st century, however, Americans began to realize that a terrible bifurcation had beset public education. The existing system was doing pretty darned well for affluent and middle class students, appallingly badly for poor kids — so badly that researchers started calling big urban school districts in this country a “cradle to prison pipeline.”

In Dallas, that gets specific. There are certain ZIP codes in the city where you could go through with a rubber stamp and mark “prison” on every third male baby, because that’s where they are headed.

The whole merit pay for teachers concept grew out of exciting research showing that those kids could be rescued, that we could reach in through the schoolhouse window and lift those children off that conveyor belt to prison, but only if their teachers knew how to do it and wanted to get it done.

University education departments in this country are a joke, for the most part. They don’t teach teachers how to teach. So school districts have to do it, and they have to be able to spot the ones who are doing it right.

Eric Nicholson’s wonderful story here a couple weeks ago about the turnaround at a severely troubled Dallas middle school explained how another Miles milestone, the ACE (Accelerating Campus Excellence) program, brought top teachers to a tough campus with $10,000 pay bumps and other incentives. A point not to be lost in that picture is that ACE wouldn’t even be possible without TEI.

TEI, the merit pay system, is the mechanism that allows the school district to measure and identify particularly effective teachers. Before, all they could do was identify the ones who had advanced degrees from ed schools and a lot of seniority. But the district had no way to pick out a cadre who could really get a bunch of tough kids taught. Now they can, and they are paying them to come to Dade Middle School, as Nicholson explained.

I don’t know how to look at Dade as anything but a huge victory for Miles. But OK, oh I know, let’s not go there, touchy touchy, everybody’s getting up out of his chair already all fisticuffs and everything, ready for a rumble because I said the MMMM word. Fine. Forget Miles.

As I said at the top, there are at least two fixes that probably need to be made in TEI — unforeseen glitches where two subsets of teachers may have gotten screwed in ways no one intended. Those need to be fixed.

Then let’s hear it, absent the Miles factor. I want to hear — and I want you to hear — the explicit and full argument why teacher pay should not even have an element in it of student performance as measured by tests.

I get the thing about the isms. Isms are bad. We got those isms out of there and I’m glad. Please don’t haunt me on that one, Mom.

TEI also makes all kinds of allowances for where the kids are coming from socioeconomically. No one is expecting teachers to achieve the same test results with poor kids as they might with affluent kids. That would be stupid.

Now let’s hear why teachers shouldn’t be evaluated at all, not one bit, based on student outcomes. I’m really looking forward to this.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

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